"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Hangout with Astronauts on the ISS

Following that awesome trip to NASA Glenn Research Center last summer, I promised myself it would not be the only time I participated formally in space exploration activities, especially those of a social nature. So on Friday morning I cashed in a couple of hours of vacation and journeyed eastward to a coffee shop.

The View from Biggby Coffee

Yes, you read that correctly. I took a two hour vacation to my local coffee shop. On Friday, NASA held a hangout on Google+, that social networking site many votaries of Facebook and Twitter mistakenly assume is dead in the water. It is not. And like many major organizations, NASA has figured out how to harness Google+ for social networking with devotees like me.

During my two-hour vacation to a Wi-Fi hot spot, I checked into an official Google+ Hangout where astronauts fielded a variety of questions, some asked via live webcams from schools and homes, others prerecorded on YouTube or sent via the hash tag #askAstro. It was delightful to watch students step forward and ask excellent questions of our nation's space agency, and also of Canada's. Some participants logged in from other countries. While my connection was sometimes spotty (not sure if that was due to my setup or NASA's), the event was a great reminder that as a space enthusiast I am part of a vibrant community. Thousands participated in this first hangout with the International Space Station.

The highlight was watching astronauts on the ISS field questions live from us folks on the ground. This is science as a communal and celebratory experience. I highly recommend watching the below recording of the hangout. What you won't see are the live participants. However, during the hangout their video images were integrated into the presentation. Lastly, if you are interested in participating in similar events in the future, make sure to periodically visit NASA's Connect page and pay special attention to NASA Social.

From the NASA Television Channel on YouTube:
"Aboard the International Space Station, Expedition 34 Commander Kevin Ford of NASA, Flight Engineer Tom Marshburn of NASA and Flight Engineer Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency fielded questions from social media during a Google Plus hangout February 22, the first for the station."

Saturday, February 16, 2013

'Going Clear' in Spite of Scientology

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of BeliefGoing Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For all the absurdity to be found in the story of Scientology, detailed in the new book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, one quote from a critic of the religion bugs me most. In Chapter 7, a German labor minister named Norbert Blum says, “This is not a church or a religious organization. Scientology is a machine for manipulating human beings.” I appreciate his sentiment; however, “machine for manipulating human beings” strikes me as an apt description of religion, albeit an undiplomatic one. It also makes for a good definition of fraternities, sororities, corporations, political parties, really any organization motivated by self-interest that sets out to sculpt whole societies.

I came to Lawrence Wright’s new book by way of having appreciated his Pulitzer Prize-winning work on al Qaeda in The Looming Tower. Going Clear has proved a less satisfying read, though not for lack of quality. Wright’s work continues to be first-rate long form journalism. He brings together copious amounts of new research, while providing thoughtful analysis of extant source material. Nevertheless, the book is dissatisfying and at times outright dismaying.

My dissatisfaction stems from the impossibility of achieving a complete and factual narrative. A clear picture inevitably remains hidden underneath a mountain of hearsay, slander, counter-slander, and unverifiable speculation by persons actually willing to give interviews. My dismay stems from almost everything Wright is able to verify. For all that is shocking or maddeningly esoteric about Scientology, it proves to be just the latest in an ever lengthening line of religions which pursue existential comfort at any cost: financial or intellectual. I write this as someone with a great deal of personal experience in religion.

It’s a credit to Wright that he can sift through the intellectual rubble, uncover so many troubling instances of ruined lives, all the while keeping a level head and coming back to the larger picture. And the larger picture must grant Scientology and its members some merit and understanding. Wright is able to confront the darker episodes but then pull back to remind worked-up readers like me that many in the church have harnessed the religion to attain fulfilling lives.

Wright is especially successful in making sense of Scientology’s fanatical crusade against psychiatry—a seeming hatred that comes to a head with Tom Cruise’s notorious on-air squabble with Today host Matt Lauer. Wright points out more than once the troubling underbelly of psychiatry, from its early and painful experimenting to its current reliance on profit-driven pharmacology. The fear and apprehension of Scientologists toward psychiatry, though hypocritical, is not entirely misplaced.

Where Going Clear achieves great value is in its perceptive and heartfelt portrayals of John Travolta and Paul Haggis (now an ex-Scientologist). The latter, screenwriter of the acclaimed films Crash and Million Dollar Baby, emerges as the book's protagonist. Wright has a tougher time pinning down founder L. Ron Hubbard, current leader David Miscavige, and cultural icon Tom Cruise. With these men, who lived or live cloistered behind public relations machines, Wright can do little more than report the wealth of critical testimony about them, while dutifully footnoting the blanket denials provided by these men’s spokespersons.

The notion of belief as a prison can seem disheartening, but Wright makes a strong and carefully documented case that it is often just that. Readers of every persuasion will be given much to think about if they read Going Clear. Though it is not a fun or uplifting work, the book candidly relates the pitfalls Scientology has created for itself and its opponents. Ultimately it is an all too familiar tale of religion in pursuit of the best but often winding up at the worst.

View all my reviews

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Word to the Winner

If the winner of anything says they never dreamed it could happen, they are lying. They have to be. What contestant with even a shred of ego never dreams winning could happen? By way of confession, I just submitted a short story to a contest. Have I dreamed I might win? Of course. Several times. In fact, I dreamed up the win before I got around to proofreading the final draft.

What's that, you say? You honestly never dreamed it could happen. What the hell goes on in your cloistered mind? Oh, you were solely focused on doing your best possible writing. Well, not me. Somewhere between the third and fifth drafts I put down my pen, slouched back in my chair, patted my belly and said to the ceiling, "Wouldn't it be awesome if...?"

Sunday, February 3, 2013

5 Questions for an Aerospace Engineer

To the degree that our daily lives run well, we likely have engineers to thank. So let me introduce you to Justin Bradley, a friend of mine. He is a PhD candidate in aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan. Readers, here is your chance to meet one of society’s expert problem solvers. I put five questions to Justin over email, and below are excerpts from his responses.

Jake: Hello Justin. Let’s start by bringing your expertise to bear on something controversial. Revisionist history emphasizes the role of optimism in the success of The Little Engine That Could. But let’s be candid. There were technical reasons he made it over that hill. What were they?

Justin: We could certainly talk about the role of momentum, acceleration, and velocity, inertial frames, the friction of the wheels against the iron, the pressure from the burning of coal to power the pistons which turned the wheels, the law of conservation of energy, the various environmental factors that contributed to all the aforementioned, or the fact that we like to imbue inanimate objects with human characteristics. But ultimately I think we just have to admit that God wanted The Little Engine to make it over that hill so that we could create a fable about it to convince our children that hard work can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles! ;-)

Jake: Today you are an aerospace engineer on his way to a PhD at U-M. Tell us how you got there and what you do:

Laser Bay 2, National Ignition Facility,
Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Justin: I got my BS in Computer Engineering from BYU in 2005. I decided to stay and complete an MS in Electrical Engineering working in the Unmanned Air Vehicle lab there called the MAGICC lab. I knew I wanted a PhD but I wanted to go to a top university to do it. Unfortunately, I didn't get into my top choices in 2007 when I graduated with my MS. So I took a job at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory working on the control system for the National Ignition Facility. After two and a half years there I got restless for the PhD again, and applied to University of Michigan in the Aerospace Engineering Dept. I now work in the Autonomous Aerospace Systems Lab (A2Sys Lab) there focusing on Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) research. ...
"Computer systems are increasingly controlling and operating the physical devices in our world."
Jake: Let’s connect your lab work to any given person whom you’ll never meet but who will benefit from it. How does your research transfer to the world off-campus?

Justin: Computer systems are increasingly controlling and operating the physical devices in our world. The computer in your car probably regulates the air/fuel mixture, the flow and rate of exhaust, it may decide when to turn on/off your lights, and if you have a new car, it may even be able to park itself. All these things require the interaction of a computer and a physical device. Historically, those two worlds, the computer world and the physical world, have been kept separate in a theoretical sense. That is, computer scientists make idealistic assumptions about the nature of the physical device the computer is controlling. Similarly, controls engineers make idealistic assumptions about the operating nature of the computer system. This leads to inefficiencies, and sometimes problems, when those assumptions fail to hold (and they always fail to hold to one degree or another). A new area of research, Cyber-Physical Systems, was created to address these concerns and increase our ability to design for the computational and physical systems together, paying particular attention to the interconnection and interdependence between those systems.
"If I'm being truly honest, my fall back plan would have been to become an auto mechanic, or a semi-truck driver. "
Jake: If you weren’t an aerospace engineer, what other branch of engineering might you focus on and why?

Justin: When I'm done here, I'll have four degrees spanning three relatively large branches of engineering - computer, electrical, and aerospace. The overriding theme among these three, in my career, has been systems engineering, and ultimately, I consider myself a systems engineer more than any of the others. If I had to pick a different engineering track, I would choose mechanical engineering. I love learning about how things work, and one of the weaknesses in my career has been the lack of understanding of mechanical processes such as heat transfer, thermodynamics, structural engineering, etc. But if I'm being truly honest, my fall back plan would have been to become an auto mechanic, or a semi-truck driver. I love cars, and I love to drive!

Jake: Astrophysicists often express profound wonder for the universe. Does engineering have a similar romantic component? Why or why not?

Justin: ... Aerospace and electrical engineers really have a romantic view of mathematics, and proofs. We pride ourselves on the certainties of mathematical proofs, often at the expense of creativity and pragmatism. It's easy to see why - you don't want your airplane to fall out of the sky because you relied on something that "just worked," but not entirely understood, rather than on something that was provably correct. Our conferences and journals have a profound respect for an elegant proof of a mathematical theorem, and sometimes this tends to become the goal. ...
"For me, there is a real sense of awe when I see something that has obviously been very well designed and engineered."
In addition, for me, there is a real sense of awe when I see something that has obviously been very well designed and engineered. ... When you've been involved in the design and creation of a real working product you gain tremendous respect for the amount of hard work, late nights, and intense testing that such masterpieces demand. Conversely shortcuts, cheap tricks, and lazy engineering are rather easy to spot and become a source of frustration and disdain.

Jake: Thanks to Justin for his thoughtful responses and for being the guinea pig in my first attempt at a blog interview.